Saul (Handel)

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George Frideric Handel

Saul (HWV 53) is a dramatic oratorio in three acts written by George Frideric Handel with a libretto by Charles Jennens. Taken from the First Book of Samuel, the story of Saul focuses on the first king of Israel's relationship with his eventual successor, David—one which turns from admiration to envy and hatred, ultimately leading to the downfall of the eponymous monarch. The work, which Handel composed in 1738, includes the famous "Dead March", a funeral anthem for Saul and his son Jonathan, and some of the composer's most dramatic choral pieces. Saul was first performed at the King's Theatre in London on 16 January 1739. The work was a success at its London premiere and was revived by Handel in subsequent seasons. Notable modern-day performances of Saul include that at Glyndebourne in 2015.


18th-century painting of the King's Theatre, London, and adjacent buildings
London King's Theatre Haymarket, where Saul was first performed

The German-born Handel had been resident in London since 1712 and had there enjoyed great success as a composer of Italian operas. His opportunities to set English texts to music had been more limited; he had spent the years 1717 to 1719 as composer in residence to the wealthy Duke of Chandos where he had written church anthems and two stage works, Acis and Galatea and Esther; and had composed vocal music to English words for various royal occasions, including a set of Coronation anthems for George II in 1727, which had made a huge impact.[1] In 1731, a performance of the 1718 version of Esther, a work in English based on a Biblical drama by Jean Racine, was given in London without Handel's participation and had proved popular, so Handel revised the work and planned to present it at the theatre where his Italian operas were being presented. However the Bishop of London would not permit a drama based on a Biblical story to be acted out on the stage, and therefore Handel presented Esther in concert form, thus giving birth to the English oratorio.[2]: 212 

Esther in its revised form proved a popular work, and Handel, though still continuing to focus on composition of Italian operas, followed Esther with two more sacred dramas with English words to be presented in concert form, Deborah, and Athalia (which, like Esther, was also based on a Biblical drama by Racine), both in 1733.

Composition and instrumentation[edit]

By 1738, Handel was experiencing some difficulty in maintaining support for his Italian opera seasons in London and he collaborated for the first time with Charles Jennens, a wealthy landowner and lover of the arts, who also provided the texts for Messiah and other oratorios of Handel. Jennens wrote Saul, an original English text based on Biblical characters, especially designed to provide opportunities for the sort of music Handel composed.[2]: 23 

Opera seria, the form of Italian opera that Handel composed for London, focused overwhelmingly on solo arias and recitatives for the star singers and contained very little else; they did not feature separate choruses. With the English oratorios Handel had the opportunity to mix operatic arias in English for the soloists with large choruses of the type that he used in the Coronation anthems. Jennens provided a text with well-rounded characters and dramatic effects.[2]: 23  The collaboration with Jennens was not without tension; Jennens referred in a letter to the "maggots" in Handel's head and complained that Handel wanted to end the work with a chorus of "Hallelujahs" that the librettist did not feel was appropriate as at the end of the piece Israel has been defeated in battle and the King and Crown Prince both killed, whereas the Hallelujahs would be suited to the celebrations at the opening of the work when David has killed Goliath.[2] Jennens got his way; in the completed version Saul does not end with a chorus of "Hallelujahs" but there is such a chorus where Jennens had wanted one.[3]

Handel composed the music of Saul between July and September 1738.[4] He conceived Saul on the grandest scale and included a large orchestra with many instrumental effects which were unusual for the time including a carillon (a keyboard instrument which makes a sound like chiming bells); a specially constructed organ for himself to play during the course of the work; trombones, not standard orchestral instruments at that time, giving the work a heavy brass component; large kettledrums specially borrowed from the Tower of London; extra woodwinds for the Witch of Endor scene; and a harp solo.[2]: 318–319 

In the same letter in which Jennens complained that Handel wanted a chorus of "Hallelujahs" at a point of the drama the writer felt was inappropriate, he wrote of a meeting he had with Handel to discuss the work and the composer's delight in some of the unusual instruments he planned to use:

Mr. Handel's head is more full of Maggots than ever: I found yesterday in His room a very queer Instrument which He calls Carillon (Anglice a Bell) & says some call it a Tubal-cain, I suppose because it is in the make and tone like a Hammer striking upon Anvils. 'Tis played upon with Keys like a Harpsichord, & with this Cyclopean Instrument he designs to make poor Saul stark mad. His second Maggot is an Organ of 500£ price, which (because he is overstock'd with Money) he has bespoke of one Moss of Barnet; this Organ, he says, is so contriv'd that as he sits at it he has a better command of his Performers than he us'd to have; & he is highly delighted to think with what exactness his Oratorio will be perform'd by the help of this Organ; so that for the future, instead of beating time at his Oratorio's, he is to sit as his Organ all the time with his back to the Audience ... I could tell you more of his Maggots: but it grows late, and I must defer the rest till I write next; by which time, I doubt not, more new ones will breed in his Brain.[2]: 266 

Also of note in that letter is the fact that although Handel's London seasons of Italian opera had not been drawing the audiences they had in former years, Jennens makes an incidental remark that the composer was very wealthy ("overstock'd with money").[2]: 267 

On 5 December 1738 Lady Katherine Knatchbull, a friend and patron of Handel's, wrote to her brother-in-law James Harris, who was a writer on music and other subjects, and also a friend of the composer, "(Handel) desired me to give his tres humble respects; and that you must come up in January, for he opens with The Loves of Saul and Jonathan, then follows another on the ten plagues of Egypt (to me an odd subject) ... He has had an instrument made after the manner of Tubal-cain's, the inventor of music." (referring to the specially-built carillon. Going on to an attempt to describe a trombone, an instrument she had obviously never seen, she writes:) "He has also introduced the sackbut, a kind of trumpet,with more variety of notes,& it is 7 or 8-foot long,& draws in like a perspective glass, so may be shortened to 3-foot as the player chuses, or thrown out to its full length; despise not this description for I write from his own words."[5]

In the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, specialist in the history of musical instruments Anthony Baines wrote that Saul contains the finest music for trombones composed in the 18th century.[6]

Reception and performance history[edit]

A report in the London press remarked on the favourable reception given to the work at its first performance,[7] with members of the royal family in attendance.[2]: 269  The architect William Kent wrote to Lord Burlington after the first performance, referring to the passage with the carillon, "There is a pretty concerto in the oratorio, there is some stops in the Harpsicord that are little bells, I had thought it had been some squerrls in a cage.[2]: 270  Saul was given six performances in its first season, a mark of success at that time,[7] and was one of the works Handel most frequently revived in his subsequent seasons, being given in London in 1740, 1741,1744,1745 and 1750. Saul received a performance in Dublin under Handel's direction "by special request" in 1742.[8]

Already in Handel's own lifetime, choral societies were formed in the English provinces with the aim of performing works of Handel and others,[9] and Saul was performed with a fair degree of regularity by choral societies in London and elsewhere in Britain through the 19th century.[10] Handel's major oratorios including Saul have been frequently performed, broadcast and recorded since the second half of the twentieth century.[11] Saul is sometimes fully staged as an opera today.[12] [13]

The excellence of the libretto and the power of Handel's musical characterisation combine to make Saul, in the words of Handel scholar Winton Dean,"one of the supreme masterpieces of dramatic art, comparable with the Oresteia and King Lear".[1]


Contemporary engraving of a member of the original cast
Élisabeth Duparc, creator of the role of Michal
Roles, voice types, and premiere cast
Role Voice[14] 1739 cast[15]
Saul, King of Israel bass Gustavus Waltz
Merab, Princess of Israel soprano Cecilia Young
Michal, Princess of Israel soprano Élisabeth Duparc ("La Francesina")
Jonathan, Prince of Israel tenor John Beard
David, future King of Israel contralto[16] Mr Russell
Ghost of Samuel bass Mr Hussey
High Priest tenor Mr Kelly
Witch of Endor tenor Miss Young (possibly Cecilia's sister, Esther?)[17]
Abner tenor not stated[18]
Amalekite tenor Mr Stoppelaer
Doeg bass Mr Butler
Chorus of Israelites


Painting showing David displaying the severed head of Goliath on a pole and the people celebrating
The Triumph of David by Nicolas Poussin

The libretto is freely adapted from the First Book of Samuel, Chapters 16–31, with additional material from the epic poem, the Davideis by Abraham Cowley. The printed libretto of Saul from 1738 credits the Davideis as the source of the contemptuous treatment of David by Princess Merab.[19]

Act 1[edit]

Engraving showing the King throwing his javelin at David
Saul Tries to Kill David by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

The Israelites raise their voices in magnificent thanksgiving to God, for the young warrior David has slain the Philistine giant Goliath. At the court of King Saul, once a mighty warrior himself, all the people celebrate the hero David. Saul's son, Jonathan swears eternal devotion to David, but Saul's two daughters experience contrasting emotions – Michal is in love with David, but Merab feels contempt for him as a social inferior, a feeling that only increases when Saul offers her in marriage to David. A group of Israelite young women offer further tributes to David. King Saul is enraged at the way David is praised. Unable to restrain his anger, he orders Jonathan to kill David.

Act 2[edit]

Dramatic painting of a hooded figure raising a ghost as the bearded King clutches his brow
The Witch of Endor (Martynov)

The people of Israel reflect on the destructive power of envy. Jonathan pleads David's case to Saul, who appears to relent. Saul asks Jonathan to bring David back to court and promises Michal as David's bride, though Saul anticipates David's death in battle. David and Michal express their mutual love, but David reports that Saul's rage has not diminished and that Saul threw a javelin close past his head in frustration. Saul summons David to court again as both Michal and Merab express their faith that God will protect David. Jonathan tries to explain to Saul why David has not responded to his summons. Saul rages against both David and Jonathan.

Act 3[edit]

In despair, and though aware it is unlawful, Saul asks the Witch of Endor to raise the ghost of Samuel the prophet. Asked for advice, the ghost of Samuel reminds Saul that he had once predicted his downfall for sparing the king of the Amalekites whom Samuel had ordered killed. He predicts that David will inherit the kingdom of Israel when Saul and his sons die in the next day's battle. David learns from an Amalekite soldier of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan at the hands of the Amalekites, and David orders the Amalekite killed. After a funeral march for the Israelite dead, Merab, David, and Michal each in turn express their sorrow, particularly for the loss of Jonathan. A high priest predicts David will win future victories and the Israelites urge him to restore their kingdom.[1]

The "Dead March"[edit]

The "Dead March" played in Act Three, introducing the obsequies for the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, is in the key of C major. It includes an organ part and trombones alternating with flutes, oboes and quiet timpani.[2] The "Dead March" in Saul has been played at state funerals in the United Kingdom,[20] including that of Winston Churchill.[21] It is the standard funeral march of the armed forces of Germany, played at all state funerals. It was also performed at the funeral of George Washington, during the funeral procession of Stonewall Jackson, as well as being played many times during the journey of the body of Abraham Lincoln after his assassination to Springfield, Illinois.[22][23][24] In 2015, it was performed at the state funeral of Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore.[25]

List of arias and musical numbers[edit]

(Note: "Symphony" in this context means a purely instrumental piece. "Accompagnato" is a recitative accompanied by the orchestra, rather than by continuo instruments only, as in the passages marked "recitative.").

Musical features[edit]

Saul is composed for soloists and chorus, two flutes, two oboes, two trumpets, three trombones, kettledrums, organ, harp, continuo instruments, and strings.[19] The work begins and ends in C major, a key choice which may have been influenced by the presence of trombones in the orchestra. Handel's other work of the same season to use trombones, Israel in Egypt, also favours C major for the choruses with trombones in their accompaniment.[2]: 320 

The first piece of music is an overture in the Italian style in three movements, the first quick and fugal, then a slow movement, followed by another quick section with the addition of a concerto-like passage for organ,[19] which Handel played himself at the original performances as he directed the musicians.[2]: 266  The overture is followed by a slower dance-like piece for orchestra,marked andante larghetto.[19]

Act One[edit]

The act begins with the chorus of celebration after David has slain Goliath. Trumpets and trombones, which were not present in the overture, are now added. The chorus of rejoicing is developed briefly in counterpoint.[19] A slower air for soprano in a minor key praising David's achievement is followed by a chorus for alto, tenor and bass marked, unusually, Ardito (boldly), and then a longer chorus with developed counterpoint is heard. The chorus which opened the act is repeated, followed by a jubilant chorus of "Hallelujah", to end the opening "Epinicion or Song of Triumph".[19] The expansive scale of the multi-part overture, and the glitter and celebratory quality of the Epinicion are indications, according to Jonathan Keates, of the ambition of the work as a whole and its monumental achievement.[27]

Other of the most notable musical features of Act One include the chorus and dance movement including the carillon with a chorus of praise for David, which rouse King Saul to terrible jealousy. David's attempt to soothe the King is conveyed in an aria of "simple purity",[27]"O Lord, whose mercies numberless", followed by harp solo. David's efforts are in vain, and the King's jealousy breaks out into an aria of fury "A serpent, in my bosom warm'd", which suddenly and unexpectedly breaks off as the King hurls his javelin at David, depicted in the music by descending octaves in the strings.[27] A chorus in the key of G minor, developed contrapuntally, ends the act as the chorus pray that God will protect David.[19]

Act Two[edit]

The second act begins as the chorus comment on the drama after the manner of the chorus in Greek tragedy, in "Envy, eldest born of hell" which according to musicologist Paul Henry Lang is "as mighty a piece as Handel ever composed".[28] Dotted rhythms over a relentlessly repeated ostinato bass depict the obsessive jealousy of the King as the chorus warn him "Hide thee in the black night".[19]

Two purely instrumental passages ("symphonies") feature in Act Two. The first, depicting the celebrations for the wedding of David and Michal, is in three parts, a slow and solemn introduction with trombones prominent, the second section a brisk organ concerto, concluding with a slower movement in the form of a gavotte.[19][28] The second instrumental passage in the act is a shorter festive piece with trumpets and drums, trombones, woodwinds and strings, depicting the holiday of the New Moon.[19]

A chorus in the key of D major, with a chromatic fugal section at the end, concludes the act as the chorus denounce the King as a monster for the attempted murders of both Jonathan and David.[19]

Act Three[edit]

Act three opens with a powerful and dramatic[28] accompanied recitative for King Saul as he seeks advice from the Witch of Endor. The Witch invokes the ghost of Samuel in a passage which conjures up a supernatural atmosphere by the use of an irregular bass line with prominent oboes and bassoons.[2]: 319 [27] Bassoons also introduce the Ghost of Samuel as the apparition prophesies doom for the King.[2]: 319  A martial "Battle symphony" with trumpets and drums ensues,[19] followed shortly by the famous Dead March. Chorus and soloists mourn the deaths of the King and his son, and the work concludes with a chorus in the key of C major urging David to lead his country into battle against its enemies.[19]

Selected recordings[edit]

Saul discography
Year Cast:Saul,
Ghost of Samuel,
Witch of Endor
and chorus
1973 Donald McIntyre,
Margaret Price,
Sheila Armstrong,
Ryland Davies,
James Bowman,
Stafford Dean
John Winfield
Charles Mackerras,
English Chamber Orchestra,
Leeds Festival Chorus
CD:Archiv 0289 447 6962 3 ADD AX3
1981 Thomas Allen,
Sally Burgess,
Margaret Marshall,
Robert Tear,
Paul Esswood,
Matthew Best,
Martyn Hill
Philip Ledger,
English Chamber Orchestra,
King's College Choir, Cambridge
CD:Virgin 7243 5 62118 2 7
1985 Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,
Julia Varady,
Elizabeth Gale,
Anthony Rolfe-Johnson,
Paul Esswood
Matthias Hölle,
Helmut Wildhaber
Nikolaus Harnoncourt,
Concentus Musicus Wien,
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
live recording from a concert
CD:Das Alte Werk 2564 686983
1989 Alistair Miles,
Donna Brown,
Lynne Dawson,
John Mark Ainsley,
Derek Lee Ragin,
Richard Savage,
Phillip Salmon
John Eliot Gardiner,
English Baroque Soloists,
Monteverdi Choir
CD:Phillips 000942802
1997 Gregory Reinhart,
Simone Kermes,
Vasilijka Jezovsek,
John Elwes,
Matthias Koch,
Michail Schelomjanskis,
Johannes Kalpers
Peter Neumann,
Collegium Cartusianum,
Kölner Kammerchor
CD:MDG 332 0801-2
2004 Neal Davies,
Nancy Argenta,
Susan Gritton,
Mark Padmore,
Andreas Scholl,
Paul Agnew,
Angus Smith
Paul McCreesh,
Gabrieli Players,
Gabrieli Consort
Archiv 0289 474 5102
2012 Christopher Purves,
Elizabeth Atherton,
Joélle Harvey,
Robert Murray,
Sarah Connolly,
Stuart Young,
Jeremy Budd
Harry Christophers,
The Sixteen
The Sixteen Chorus
CD:Coro COR16103
2020 Markus Brück,
Sophie Bevan,
Mary Bevan.
Benjamin Hulett,
Eric Jurenas
Raphael Höhn,
Raphael Höhn
Laurence Cummings,
Festspiel Orchester Göttingen,
NDR Chor
CD:Accent ACC26414


  1. ^ a b c Kemp, Lindsay. "Programme Notes for Saul" (PDF). BBC. Retrieved 28 September 2013.[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Burrows, Donald (2012). Handel (Master Musicians Series). Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition. ISBN 978-0-19-973736-9.
  3. ^ Smith, Ruth (2005). Handel's Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought. Cambridge University Press. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-521-02370-2.
  4. ^ Blakeman, Edward (2009). The Faber Pocket Guide to Handel. Faber & Faber. p. 192. ISBN 978-0-571-23831-6.
  5. ^ Burrows, Donald (2002). Music and Theatre in Handel's World: The Family Papers of James Harris 1732–1780. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-19-816654-2.
  6. ^ Guion, David (1988). Trombone: Its History and Music, 1697–1811. Routledge. p. 206. ISBN 978-2-88124-211-3.
  7. ^ a b Smither, Howard E. (1977). A History of the Oratorio: Vol. 2: the Oratorio in the Baroque Era: Protestant Germany and England. The University of North Carolina Press. p. 215. ISBN 978-0-8078-1294-5.
  8. ^ "G. F. Handel's Compositions". The Handel Institute. Archived from the original on 24 September 2013. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  9. ^ Newman, Gerald (1997). Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714–1837: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 473. ISBN 978-0-8153-0396-1.
  10. ^ Landgraf, Annette, ed. (2009). The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia. Cambridge University Press. p. 521. ISBN 978-0-521-88192-0.
  11. ^ Burrows, Donald, ed. (1998). The Cambridge Companion to Handel. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge University Press. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-521-45613-5.
  12. ^ Clements, Andrew (24 July 2015). "Saul review – virtuoso, ravishing, one of Glyndebourne's finest shows". The Guardian UK. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  13. ^ "Saul am Theater an der Wien: Händel, Guth, alles gut". Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  14. ^ According to Opera Stanford libretto unless otherwise stated.
  15. ^ According to the original libretto as reported by Percy M. Young in his Preface Archived 7 August 2020 at the Wayback Machine to the piano reduction of the oratorio, based on the urtext of the Halle Handel Edition by Heinz Moehn (Händel, Saul. Oratorio in three acts//Oratorium in drei Akten (9th printing), Kassel, Bärenreiter, 2009, p. IV, ISMN 979-0-006-44308-6).
  16. ^ According to Anthony Hicks the role was originally intended to be sung by contralto Maria Antonia Marchesini [it], and it was only taken at the premiere by Mr Russell, an actor singing as a tenor, on account of her illness. Thereafter it was always entrusted by Handel to female singers (cf. David Vickers, HANDEL Saul. The Sixteen’s magnificent new recording of Handel’s Saul, "Gramophone"; Robert Hugill, CD Review – Handel's Saul, "Planet Hugill – A world of classical music", 19 September 2012). The London Daily Post of 16 January 1739, as reported by Percy M. Young (cited above), advertised Marchesini (the "Marchesina detta la Lucchesina") as the scheduled first performer.
  17. ^ According to Percy M. Young (cited above) no name is reported by the original libretto, but in the London Daily Post of 16 January 1739 a Miss Young was advertised as the first performer.
  18. ^ According to the London Daily Post of 16 January 1739, as reported by Percy M. Young (cited above), the role was to be performed by Mr Russel.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Martini, Joachim Carlos. "Programme Notes for "Saul"". Naxos,com. Retrieved 20 October 2013.
  20. ^ Kennedy, Michael (1995). The Oxford Dictionary of Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-869162-4.
  21. ^ Chandler, David, ed. (2003). The Oxford History of the British Army. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 345. ISBN 978-0-19-280311-5.
  22. ^ Edward G., Lengel (2012). A Companion to George Washington. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4443-3103-5.
  23. ^ "Spotsylvania Memory: The Funerals of Stonewall Jackson". 8 October 2019.
  24. ^ Roden, Timothy J. (2009). Anthology for Music in Western Civilization, Volume II. Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-0-495-57275-6.
  25. ^ "Funeral service to involve people who reflect Mr Lee Kuan Yew's legacy". TODAYonline.
  26. ^ "Libretto of "Saul"". Stanford University. Retrieved 20 October 2013.
  27. ^ a b c d Keates, Jonathan (1985). Handel: The Man & His Music. Random House UK. p. 257. ISBN 978-1-84595-115-3.
  28. ^ a b c Lang, Paul Henry (2011). George Frideric Handel (reprint ed.). Dover Books on Music. pp. 305–6. ISBN 978-0-486-29227-4.
  29. ^ "Complete List of Recordings of Handel's "Saul"". Presto Classical. Retrieved 14 November 2013.

External links[edit]